Today kicks off the week-long Saturnalia and thus I extend my usual traditional Saturnalia greetings: Io! Saturnalia, cast off your toga! (or for you modern celebrants, Io! Saturnalia! Toga! Toga! Toga!
Normally, I revise the same snarky little cease-fire in the war on Christmas Saturnalia message and repost it. But, I thought this year, instead, I'd post a piece I wrote on the Saturnalia, last year, that I published on Qassia.
Io! Saturnalia!! Cast Off Your Toga!!!
"Cast off your toga" is an ancient addendum to the greeting "Io Saturnalia," that would have been extended at or just prior to the beginning of the Saturnalia. But, did it mean what so many assume it did, today? Was the Saturnalia really just a week long sexual orgy as so many believe? If not, what was it?
Several years ago, I read a journal or letter or diary from ancient Rome wherein the author described returning home, in a (dark or somber?) mood, at the start of the Saturnalia and as he met his fellow Romans in the street, they called out this greeting, "Io Saturnalia! Cast off your
toga!" As he made his way through the street, that he was met with the greeting by each jubilant passerby, brightened his mood and put him in the celebratory spirit. In the piece, he extolled on how wonderful it was to return home from such a journey at the Saturnalia and how it renewed the spirit...
not that dissimilar from reading a similar diary passage of someone returning home at Christmas and feeling renewed by it, nowadays.
"Cast off your toga" did not mean "get naked" as many assume -- they weren't naked under their togas anyway, so that would just be silly -- it basically meant something more along the lines of, "it's time to make merry" within the context that made the toga inappropriate to the celebration.
The toga had a lot of "importance" and meaning, different togas were for different people or occasions and meant different things. Slaves, foreigners and ex patriots weren't allowed to wear them, at all. As the "fashion" trended heavier and looser, over time, they became too cumbersome to wear in battle -- so soldiers did not wear them and the toga became a symbol and even a word for peace. Togas were too cumbersome to wear when doing physical labor, such as farm work, so they were also associated with loftier or more civil pursuits. They weren't practical around the house, so they were associated with one's public or "official" presence, etc. In a way, it was the 3 piece business suit and tie, of its day.
The whole role switching & "lord of misrule" turning society/civility on its ear custom, coupled with the fact that it would have been difficult to make so merry as was made for Saturnalia in a heavy, loosely wrapped woolen toga, made it highly inappropriate dress for the occasion of celebrating the Saturnalia. Thus, only prostitutes and convicted adulteresses would have worn the toga during the Saturnalia.
Those who might read a more sexual meaning into the greeting, due to a belief that the Saturnalia was a week long omni-sexual orgy, gay orgy and/or celebration of pedophilic depravity and debauchery should note that sexuality, too, was viewed quite differently, in that ancient time and culture.
Excepting those periods of ancient Roman history when same-gender relations were condemned as being too Greek-like (Greek men were seen as effeminite, dirty, lazy and impotent by their Roman conquerors,) they were open and very widely accepted as just part and parcel of everyday life.
There were no words in the language to distinguish homosexuality, heterosexuality or bisexuality from one another. Homosexuality existed, certainly, but it was uncommon. Heterosexuality existed, too, but was just as uncommon. Bisexuality, not monosexuality, was the norm through the bulk of the Roman Republic from the early period through the late. The graphic record of this, from Rome, is considerably sparser than that from Greece, but the literary record is just as prolific. Of the first dozen or so emperors of Rome, all male, most had husbands -- that's right, legally wed same gendered couples -- and only one of the first few emperors kept exclusively to female partners.
Pederasty/pedophilia, was seen as a dirty Greek practice and forbidden, early on in the Roman Republic. A similar, socially accepted or even expected practice emerged that involved relations with slaves, of either gender -- the slave was a legitimate sex partner, but being less worthy than a Roman citizen, the slave had to be a "bottom" and the citizen had to be a "top." Not that anyone followed that rule... and there was, indeed, a word used to distinguish male citizens who not only took the passive role but purposely tried to make themselves more attractive to "tops" or worse, to boys, by taking on a more feminine appearance and mannerisms -- it was the same word as that for eunichs.
Pederasty went in and out of social acceptance (or perhaps more accurately, societal tolerance) through the mid to late Republic, but even during periods of its highest acceptance, it was hotly debated, publically derided and seen by many as nasty and wrong. The periods of acceptance, from what little I've been able to piece together from what I've read, seem to have a direct correlation to whether the emperor or others of great importance/influence at that time were engaging in pedophilia.
Curiously, and there's not a lot out there that I"ve found to read on the subject so this may not have actually been the case -- it seems that the biggest literary proponents of male pedophilia and of effeminite passivity with both adult slaves and boys, were also the most harshly condemning of
sexual relations between consenting adult females.
The Saturnalia celebration was not just a big gay pedophile sex free-for all as so many wrongly assume and as "Church" has intentionally rewritten into the history.
Sexual prohibitions were, indeed, lifted durning the Saturnalia, but prohibitions weren't what they are, today, and were, instead, things like a citizen being the bottom to a slave's top... a lot of what went on,
sexually, during the Saturnalia was also going on, sexually, on any given Tuesday. "Orgies" as per the modern group-sex meaning were a much greater part of or maybe even the central focus of other holiday celebrations in ancient Rome, particularly those honoring the goddesses.
During the Saturnalia, the role reversal theme extended to cross dressing by both men and women (another lifted sexual prohibition) and there's said to have been some traditional processional or
parade involving a large phallus -- question is, was that to represent "depraved" sex or was it to
represent that fertility would begin to return with the waxing sun of the solstice? Or did it begin with a meaning that was lost as it became just part of the annual tradition, as has become the case with so
many of our borrowed or converted trappings?
Sex was a part of the celebration and it certainly wasn't as hidden as the hookups at the annual office Christmas parties are today... but sex wasn't as hidden or restricted in that society on any given
Tuesday as it is in this one, either. Sex is viewed, largely, through Christian eyes, now --
it wasn't then.
The Saturnalia was not just one celebration, but a series of separate celebrations within the larger celebration and one of these separate celebrations was a night dedicated to the childen... they were spoiled and lavished with gifts, they got to role-reverse with the adults... Unfortunately, from some of the discussions I've read on various religious forums... it seems that somehow those two separate parts of the celebration got twisted into one sick version. It's not clear whether this was an intentional corruption of the history or just ignorance and/or intellectual lethargy regarding history. Either way, this alternate version is actively being passed along or handed down as the true history of that holiday... contrary to the surviving literary record of the time, and usually laced with vehement, sometimes angry, disclaimers that no tradition of a modern Christmas was carried forward from the ancient Saturnalia.
Even the word "orgy" does not mean, today, what it once meant. The Christian church intentionally made the word "orgy" synonymous with "Saturnalia," but at that time, the word "orgy" meant "secret worship." The word gradually came to mean what it does, today, specifically because of the church's pre-occupation with sex and the idea that all secret or private worshipping, if not all worship outside Christianity, must involve something not only sexual but, by their definition, sexually depraved. (A particularly curious mindset, given that Christ dictated, in the Christian Bible, that Christian worship should be secret or private, in nature: Pray not thou in the streets... ...go secretly into thine closet...)
As per the modern meaning of "orgy" it's probably a more fitting description of the Greek counterpart to Saturnalia... Dionysia, which (I've read considerably less about, so am not as confident I have it right) was a fertility based celebration, at which you would have had your fill of both phallic shaped cakes/treats and group sex, there would have been a big wooden penis paraded through the street and a special phallus song would have been sung.
Sidenote: I've also seen mention of an all-female sexual December celebration, but a mention is about all I've ever seen and I don't remember, off hand, what it was called, to try to research for more information on it.
Imagine if our modern Christmas carried any of the traditions of Dionysia forward... Condoms hung by the vagina shaped fireplace opening with care, presents tucked neatly under the big wooden Christmas Penis all a-twinkle in colored lights and tinsel, anatomically exaggerated Gingerbread men.
Oh and I don't even want to THINK about what Santa's costume might be... but I suspect it might look a lot like Borat's neon green man-thong thing only red and trimmed in fur.. *shudder.* Sounds pretty depraved compared to our modern fir trees (which were carried from the Saturnalia,) velvet Christmas stockings and anatomically challenged gingerbread men, doesn't it?
But, if you're looking for true, sick, twisted, "Saturnalia" depravity... it actually does exist in the historical record... at least, by MY definition of sick, twisted and depraved. To find it, though, you'll have to fast forward from Ancient Rome to the new and improved, under new Christian management, Saturnalia v 2.0 of the 15th through at least 19th centuries and get a load of the traditions Pope John Paul II started in the 15th century. He was a real piece of work, that one.... and apparantly a couple hundred years or so of his successors were cut from the same holy cloth as he.
Which do we really find more depraved, today -- filling a hollow statue of Saturn with fresh olive oil, loosing the ties that bind the statue's feet and seating his effigy at the feasting table to pretend he's dining with us mere mortals, as was the custom of the ancient Saturnalia OR rounding up all the Jews, stripping them naked, forcing them to gorge themselves beyond full and then run, stumbling over one another, through crowded streets lined with good Christians who take merry delight in hurling rocks and rotten food at them to further their humiliation, as was the custom of the Christian Saturnalia revival?
Most of us would probably assume that our various modern December holiday celebration customs will seem respectable, normal and wholesome, to people looking back on us, centuries from now. But, we cannot know or even guess how the historical record of our time and culture will have have been misinterpreted or corrupted, by then, or how what is perfectly normal and innocent to us, today, might be seen through the eyes of tomorrow's cultures.